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Love-at-Arms by Raphael Sabatini

Part 3 out of 5

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"Alas no. But the Venetians are on the eve of war, and they will find
work for these hands of mine. I want not for friends among them."

Fanfulla sighed.

"And so we lose you. The stoutest arm in Babbiano leaves us in the hour
of need, driven out by that loutish Duke. By my soul, Ser Francesco, I
would I might go with you. Here is nothing to be done."

Francesco paused in the act of drawing on a boot, and raised his eyes to
stare a moment at his friend.

"But if you wish it, Fanfulla, I shall rejoice to have your company."

And now the idea of it entered Fanfulla's mind in earnest, for his
expression had been more or less an idle one. But since Francesco
invited him, why not indeed?

And thus it came to pass that at the third hour of that warm May night a
party of four men on horseback and two sumpter mules passed out of
Babbiano and took the road that leads to Vinamare, and thence into the
territory of Urbino. These riders were the Count of Aquila and Fanfulla
degli Arcipreti, followed by Lanciotto leading a mule that bore the arms
of those knights-errant, and Zaccaria leading another with their general

All night they rode beneath the stars, and on until some three hours
after sunrise, when they made halt in a hollow of the hills not far from
Fabriano. They tethered their horses in a grove of peaceful laurel and
sheltering mulberry, at the foot of a slope that was set with olive
trees, grey, gnarled and bent as aged cripples, and beside the river
Esino at a spot where it was so narrow that an agile man might leap its
width. Here, then, they spread their cloaks, and Zaccaria unpacked his
victuals, and set before them a simple meal of bread and wine and roasted
fowl, which to their hunger made more appeal than a banquet at another
season. And when they had eaten they laid them down beside the stream,
and there beguiled in pleasant talk the time until they fell asleep.
They rested them through the heat of the day, and waking some three hours
after noon, the Count rose up and went some dozen paces down the stream
to a spot where it fell into a tiny lake--a pool deep and blue as the
cloudless heavens which it mirrored. Here he stripped off his garments
and plunged headlong in, to emerge again, some moments later, refreshed
and reinvigorated in body and in soul.

As Fanfulla awoke he beheld an apparition coming towards him, a figure
lithe and stalwart as a sylvian god, the water shining on the ivory
whiteness of his skin and glistening in his sable hair as the sunlight
caught it.

"Tell me now, Fanfulla, lives there a man of so depraved a mind that he
would prefer a ducal crown to this?"

And the courtier, seeing Francesco's radiant mien, understood perhaps, at
last, how sordid was the ambition that could lure a man from such a god-
like freedom, and from the holy all-consuming joys it brought him. His
thoughts being started upon that course, it was of this they talked what
time the Count resumed his garments--his hose of red, his knee-high boots
of untanned leather, and his quilted brigandine of plain brown cloth,
reputed dagger-proof. He rose at last to buckle on his belt of hammered
steel, from which there hung, behind his loins, a stout, lengthy dagger,
the only weapon that he carried.

At his command the horses were saddled and the sumpters laden once more.
Lanciotto held his stirrup, and Zaccaria did like service for Fanfulla,
and presently they were cantering out of that fragrant grove on to the
elastic sward of broad, green pasture-lands. They crossed the stream at
a spot where the widened sheet of water scarce went higher than their
horses' hocks; then veering to the east they rode away from the hills for
a half-league or so until they gained a road. Here they turned northward
again, and pushed on towards Cagli.

As the bells were ringing the Ave Maria the cavalcade drew up before the
Palazzo Valdicampo, where two nights ago Gian Maria had been entertained.
Its gates were now as readily thrown wide to welcome the illustrious and
glorious Count of Aquila, who was esteemed by Messer Valdicampo no less
than his more puissant cousin. Chambers were set at his disposal, and at
Fanfulla's; servants were bidden to wait upon them; fresh raiment was
laid out for them, and a noble supper was prepared to do honour to
Francesco. Nor did the generous Valdicampo's manner cool when he learned
that Francesco was in disgrace at the Court of Babbiano and banished from
the dominions of Duke Gian Maria. He expressed sympathetic regret at so
untoward a circumstance and discreetly refrained from passing any opinion

Yet later, as they supped, and when perhaps the choice wines had somewhat
relaxed his discretion, he permitted himself to speak of Gian Maria's
ways in terms that were very far from laudatory.

"Here, in my house," he informed them, "he committed an outrage upon a
poor unfortunate, for which an account may yet be asked of me--since it
was under my roof that the thing befell, for all that I knew nothing of

Upon being pressed by Paolo to tell them more, he parted with the
information that the unfortunate in question was Urbino's jester Peppe.
At that, Paolo's glance became more intent. The memory of his meeting
with the fool and his mistress in the woods, a month ago, flashed now
across his mind, and it came to him that he could rightly guess the
source whence his cousin had drawn the information that had led to his
own arrest and banishment.

"Of what nature was the outrage?" he inquired.

"From what Peppe himself has told me it would seem that the fool was
possessed of some knowledge which Gian Maria sought, but on which Peppe
was bound by oath to silence. Gian Maria caused him to be secretly taken
and carried off from Urbino. His sbirri brought the fellow here, and to
make him speak the Duke improvised in his bedchamber a tratta di corde,
which had the desired result.

The Count's face grew dark with anger. "The coward!" he muttered. "The
dastardly craven!"

"But bethink you, sir Count," exclaimed Valdicampo, "that this poor Peppe
is a frail and deformed creature, lacking the strength of an ordinary
man, and do not judge him over-harshly."

"It was not of him I spoke," replied Francesco, "but of my cousin, that
cowardly tyrant, Gian Maria Sforza. Tell me, Messer Valdicampo--what has
become of Ser Peppe?"

"He is still here. I have had him tended, and his condition is already
much improved. It will not he long ere he is recovered, but for a few
days yet his arms will remain almost useless. They were all but torn
from his body."

When the meal was done Francesco begged his host to conduct him to
Peppe's chamber. This Valdicampo did, and leaving Fanfulla in the
company of the ladies of his house, he escorted the Count to the room
where the poor, ill-used hunchback was abed tended by one of the women of
Valdicampo's household.

"Here is a visitor to see you, Ser Peppe," the old gentleman announced,
setting down his candle on a table by the bed. The jester turned his
great head towards the newcomer's, and sought with melancoly eyes the
face of his visitor. At sight of him a look of terror spread itself upon
his countenance.

"My lord," he cried, struggling into a sitting posture, "my noble,
gracious lord, have mercy on me. I could tear out this craven tongue of
mine. But did you know what agonies I suffered, and to what a torture
they submitted me to render me unfaithful, it may be that you, yourself,
would pity me."

"Why, that I do," answered Francesco gently. "Indeed, could I have seen
the consequences that oath would have for you, I had not bound you by

The fear in Peppe's face gave place to unbelief.

"And you forgive me, lord?" he cried. "I dreaded when you entered that
you were come to punish me for what wrong I may have done you in
speaking. But if you forgive me, it may be that Heaven will forgive me
also, and that I may not be damned. And that were a thousand pities, for
what, my lord, should I do in hell?"

"Deride the agonies of Gian Maria," answered Francesco, with a laugh.

"It were almost worth burning for," mused Peppe, putting forth a hand,
whose lacerated, swollen wrist bore evidence to the torture he had
suffered. At sight of it the Count made an exclamation of angry horror,
and hastened to inquire into the poor fool's condition.

"It is not so bad now," Peppe answered him, "and it is only in
consequence of Messer Valdicampo's insistence that I have kept my bed. I
can scarce use my arms, it is true, but they are improving. To-morrow I
shall be up, and I hope to set out for Urbino, where my dear mistress
must be distressed with fears for my absence, for she is a very kind and
tender­hearted lady."

This resolve of Peppe's prompted the Count to offer to conduct him to
Urbino on the morrow, since he, himself, would be journeying that way--an
offer which the fool accepted without hesitation and with lively



In the morning Frsncesco set out once more, accompanied by his servants,
Fanfulla, and the fool. The latter was now so far restored as to be able
to sit a mule, but lest the riding should over-tire him they proceeded at
little more than an ambling pace along the lovely valleys of the Metauro.
Thus it befell that when night descended it found them still journeying,
and some two leagues distant from Urbino. Another league they travelled
in the moonlight, and the fool was beguiling the time for them with a
droll story culled from the bright pages of Messer Boccaccio, when of a
sudden his sharp ears caught a sound that struck him dumb in the middle
of a sentence.

"Are you faint?" asked Francesco, turning quickly towards him, and
mindful of the fellow's sore condition.

"No, no," answered the fool, with a readiness that dispelled the Count's
alarm on that score. "I thought I heard a sound of marching in the

"The wind in the trees, Peppino," explained Fanfulla.

"I do not think----" He stopped short and listened and now they all
heard it, for it came wafted to them on a gust of the fitful breeze that
smote their faces.

"You are right," said Francesco. "It is the tramp of men. But what of
that, Peppe? Men will march in Italy. Let us hear the end of your

"But who should march in Urbino, and by night?" the fool persisted.

"Do I know or do I care?" quoth the Count. "Your story, man."

For all that he was far from satisfied, the fool resumed his narrative.
But he no longer told it with his former irresistible humour. His mind
was occupied with that sound of marching, which came steadily nearer. At
length he could endure it no longer, and the apathy of his companions
fired him openly to rebel.

"My lord," he cried, turning to the Count, and again leaving his story
interrupted, "they are all but upon us."

"True!" agreed Francesco indifferently. "The next turn yonder should
bring us into them."

"Then I beg you, Lord Count, to step aside. Let us pause here, under the
trees, until they have passed. I am full of fears. Perhaps I am a
coward, but I mislike these roving night-hands. It may be a company of

"What then?" returned the Count, without slackening speed. "What cause
have we to fear a party of robbers?"

But Fanfulla and the servants joined their advice to Peppe's, and
prevailed at last upon Francesco to take cover until this company should
have passed. He consented, to pacify them, and wheeling to the right
they entered the border of the forest, drawing rein well in the shadow,
whence they could survey the road and see who passed across the patch of
moonlight that illumined it. And presently the company came along and
swung into that revealing flood of light. To the astonishment of the
watchers they beheld no marauding party such as they had been led to
expect, but a very orderly company of some twenty men, soberly arrayed in
leather hacketons and salades of bright steel, marching sword on thigh
and pike on shoulder. At the head of this company rode a powerfully-
built man on a great sorrel horse, at sight of whom the fool swore softly
in astonishment. In the middle of the party came four litters borne by
mules, and at the side of one of them rode a slender, graceful figure
that provoked from Peppe a second oath. But the profoundest objurgation
of all was wrung from him at sight of a portly bulk in the black habit of
the Dominicans ambling in the rear, who just then was in angry
altercation with a fellow that was urging his mule along with the butt of
his partisan.

"May you be roasted on a gridiron like Saint Lawrence," gasped the irate
priest. "Would you break my neck, brute beast that you are? Do you but
wait until we reach Roccaleone, and by St. Dominic, I'll get your
ruffianly commander to hang you for this ill-seasoned jest."

But his tormentor laughed for answer, and smote the mule again, a blow
this time that almost caused it to rear up. The friar cried out in angry
alarm, and then, still storming and threatening his persecutor, he passed
on. After him came six heavily-laden carts, each drawn by a pair of
bullocks, and the rear of the procession was brought up by a flock of a
dozen bleating sheep, herded by a blasphemant man-at-arms. They passed
the astonished watchers, who remained concealed until that odd company
had melted away into the night.

"I could swear," said Fanfulla, "that that friar and I have met before."

"Nor would you do a perjury," answered him the fool. "For it is that fat
hog Fra Domenico--he that went with you to the Convent of Acquasparta to
fetch unguents for his Excellency."

"What does he in that company, and who are they?" asked the Count,
turning to the fool as they rode out of their ambush.

"Ask me where the devil keeps his lures," quoth the fool, and I'll make
some shift to answer you. But as for what does Fra Domenico in that
galley, it is more than I can hazard a guess on. He is not the only one
known to me," Peppino added, "There was Ercole Fortemani, a great, dirty,
blustering ruffian whom I never saw in aught but rags, riding at their
heads in garments of most unwonted wholeness; and there was Romeo
Gonzaga, whom I never knew to stir by night save to an assignation.
Strange things must be happening in Urbino."

"And the litters?" inquired Francesco, "Can you hazard no guess as to
their meaning?"

"None," said he, "saving that they may account for the presence of Messer
Gonzaga. For litters argue women."

"It seems, fool, that not even your wisdom shall avail us. But you heard
the friar say they were bound for Roccaleone?"

"Yes, I heard that. And by means of it we shall probably learn the rest
at the end of our journey."

And being a man of extremely inquisitive mind, the fool set his inquiries
on foot the moment they entered the gates of Urbino in the morning--for
they had reached the city over-late to gain admittance that same night,
and were forced to seek shelter in one of the houses by the river. It
was of the Captain of the Gate that he sought information.

"Can you tell me, Ser Capitan," he inquired, "what company was that that
travelled yesternight to Roccaleone?"

The captain looked at him a moment.

"There was none that I know of," said he, "Certainly none from Urbino."

"You keep a marvellous watch," said the fool drily. "I tell you that a
company of men-at-arms some twenty strong went last night from Urbino to

"To Roccaleone?" echoed the captain, with a musing air, more attentively
than before, as if the repetition of that name had suggested something to
his mind. "Why, it is the castle of Monna Valentina."

"True, sapient sir. But what of the company, and why was it travelling
so, by night?"

"How know you it proceeded from Urbino?" quoth the captain earnestly.

"Because at its head I recognised the roaring warrior Ercole Fortemani,
in the middle rode Romeo Gonzaga, in the rear came Fra Domenico,
Madonna's confessor--men of Urbino all."

The officer's face grew purple at the news.

"Were there any women in the party?" he cried.

"I saw none," replied the fool, in whom this sudden eagerness of the
captain's awakened caution and reflection.

"But there were four litters," put in Francesco, whose nature was less
suspicious and alert than the wise fool's.

Too late Peppe scowled caution at him. The captain swore a great oath.

"It is she," he cried, with assurance. "And this company was travelling
to Roccaleone, you say. How know you that?"

"We heard it from the friar," answered Francesco readily.

"Then, by the Virgin! we have them. Olá!" He turned from them, and ran
shouting into the gatehouse, to re-emerge a moment later with half-dozen
soldiers at his heels.

"To the Palace," he commanded, and as his men surrounded Francesco's
party, "Come, sir," he said to the Count. "You must go with us, and tell
your story to the Duke."

"There is no need for all this force," answered Francesco coldly. "In
any case, I could not pass through Urbino without seeing Duke Guidobaldo.
I am the Count of Aquila."

At once the captain's bearing grew respectful. He made his apologies for
the violent measures of his zeal, and bade his men fall behind. Ordering
them to follow him, he mounted a horse that was brought him, and rode
briskly through the borgo at the Count's side. And as he rode he told
them what the jester's quick intuition had already whispered to him. The
lady Valentina was fled from Urbino in the night, and in her company were
gone three of her ladies, and--it was also supposed, since they had
disappeared--Fra Domenico and Romeo Gonzaga.

Aghast at what he heard, Francesco pressed his informer for more news;
but there was little more that the captain could tell him, beyond the
fact that it was believed she had been driven to it to escape her
impending marriage with the Duke of Babbiano. Guidobaldo was distraught
at what had happened, and anxious to bring the lady back before news of
her behaviour should reach the ears of Gian Maria. It was, therefore, a
matter of no little satisfaction to the captain that the task should be
his to bear Guidobaldo this news of her whereabouts which from Francesco
and the jester he had derived.

Peppe looked glum and sullen. Had he but bridled his cursed curiosity,
and had the Count but taken the alarm in time and held his peace, all
might have been well with his beloved patrona. As it was, he--the one
man ready to die that he might serve her--had been the very one to betray
her refuge. He heard the Count's laugh, and the sound of it was fuel to
his anger. But Francesco only thought of the splendid daring of the
lady's action.

"But these men-at-arms that she had with her?" he cried. "For what
purpose so numerous a bodyguard?"

The captain looked at him a moment.

"Can you not guess?" he inquired. "Perhaps you do not know the Castle of

"It were odd if I did not know the most impregnable fortress in Italy."

"Why, then, does it not become clear? She has taken this company for a
garrison, and in Roccaleone she clearly intends to resist in rebel
fashion the wishes of his Highness."

At that the Count threw back his head, and scared the passers-by with as
hearty a peal of laughter as ever crossed his lips.

"By the Host!" he gasped, laughter still choking his utterance. "There
is a maid for you! Do you hear what the captain says, Fanfulla? She
means to resist this wedding by armed force if needs be. Now, on my
soul, if Guidobaldo insists upon the union after this, why, then, he has
no heart, no feeling. As I live, she is a kinswoman that such a warlike
prince might well be proud of. Small wonder that they do not fear the
Borgia in Urbino." And he laughed again. But the captain scowled at
him, and Peppe frowned.

"She is a rebellious jade," quoth the captain sourly.

"Nay, softly," returned Francesco; for all that he still laughed. "If
you were of knightly rank I'd break a lance with you on that score. As
it is----" he paused, his laughter ceased, and his dark eyes took the
captain's measure in a curious way. "Best leave her uncensured, Ser
Capitano. She is of the house of Rovere, and closely allied to that of

The officer felt the rebuke, and silence reigned between them after that.

It was whilst Francesco, Fanfulla and Peppe waited in the ante-chamber
for admittance to the Duke that the jester vented some of the bitterness
he felt at their babbling. The splendid room was thronged with a courtly
crowd. There were magnificent nobles and envoys, dark ecclesiastics and
purple prelates, captains in steel and court officers in silk and velvet.
Yet, heedless of who might hear him, Peppe voiced his rebuke, and the
terms he employed were neither as measured nor as respectful as the
Count's rank dictated. Yet with that fairness of mind that made him so
universally beloved, Francesco offered no resentment to the fool's
reproof. He saw that it was deserved, for it threw upon the matter a
light that was new and more searching. But he presently saw further than
did the fool, and he smiled at the other's scowls.

"Not so loud Peppe," said he. "You over-estimate the harm. At worst, we
have but anticipated by a little what the Duke must have learnt from
other sources."

"But it is just that little--the few hours or days--that will do the
mischief," snapped the jester testily, for all that he lowered his voice.
"In a few days Gian Maria will be back. If he were met with the news
that the Lady Valentina were missing, that she had run away with Romeo
Gonzaga--for that, you'll see, will presently be the tale--do you think
he would linger here, or further care to pursue his wooing? Not he.
These alliances that are for State purposes alone, in which the heart
plays no part, demand, at least, that on the lady's side there shall be a
record unblemished by the breath of scandal. His Highness would have
returned him home, and Madonna would have been rid of him."

"But at a strange price, Peppe," answered Franeesco gravely. "Still," he
added, "I agree that I would have served her purpose better by keeping
silent. But that such an affair will cool the ardour of my cousin I do
not think. You are wrong in placing this among the alliances in which
the heart has no part. On my cousin's side--if all they say be true--the
heart plays a very considerable part indeed. But, for the rest--what
harm have we done?"

"Time will show," said the hunchback.

"It will show, then, that I have done no hurt whatever to her interests.
By now she is safe in Roccaleone. What, then, can befall her?
Guidobaldo, no doubt, will repair to her, and across the moat he will
entreat her to be a dutiful niece and to return. She will offer to do so
on condition that he pass her his princely word not to further molest her
with the matter of this marriage. And then?"

"Well?" growled the fool, "And then? Who shall say what may befall then?
Let us say that his Highness reduces her by force."

"A siege?" laughed the Count. "Pooh! Where is your wisdom, fool! Do
you think the splendid Guidobaldo is eager to become the sport of Italy,
and go down to posterity as the duke who besieged his niece because she
resisted his ordainings touching the matter of her wedding?"

"Guidobaldo da Montefeltro can be a violent man upon occasion," the fool
was answering, when the officer who had left them reappeared with the
announcement that his Highness awaited them.

They found the Prince in a very gloomy mood, and after greeting Francesco
with cool ceremony, he questioned him on the matter of the company they
had met yesternight. These inquiries he conducted with characteristic
dignity, and no more show of concern than if it had been an affair of a
strayed falcon. He thanked Francesco for his information, and gave
orders that the seneschal should place apartments at his and Fanfulla's
disposal for as long as it should please them to grace his court. With
that he dismissed them, bidding the officer remain to receive his orders.

"And that," said Francesco to Peppe, as they crossed the ante-chamber in
the wake of a servant, "is the man who would lay siege to his niece's
castle? For once, sir fool, your wisdom is at fault."

"You do not know the Duke, Excellency," answered the fool. "Beneath that
frozen exterior burns a furnace, and there is no madness he would not

But Francesco only laughed as, linking arms with Fanfulla, he passed down
the gallery on his way to the apartments to which the servant was
conducting them.



In a measure the events that followed would almost tend to show that the
fool was right. For even if the notion of besieging Valentina and
reducing her by force of arms was not Guidobaldo's own in the first
place, yet he lent a very willing ear to the counsel that they should
thus proceed, when angrily urged two days thereafter by the Duke of

Upon hearing the news Gian Maria had abandoned himself to such a licence
of rage as made those about him tremble from the highest to the meanest.
The disappointment of his passion was in itself justification enough for
this; but, in addition, Gian Maria beheld in the flight of Valentina the
frustration of those bold schemes of which had talked so loudly to his
councillors and his mother. It was his confidence in those same schemes
that had induced him to send that defiant answer to Caesar Borgia. As a
consequence of this there was haste--most desperate haste--that he should
wed, since wedding was to lend him the power to carry out his brave
promises of protecting his crown from the Duke of Valentinois, not to
speak of the utter routing of the Borgia which he had wildly undertaken
to accomplish.

That the destinies of States should be tossed to the winds of Heaven by a
slip of a girl was to him something as insufferable as it had been

"She must be brought back!" he had screeched, in his towering passion.
"She must be brought back at once."

"True!" answered Guidobaldo, in his serene way; "she must be brought
back. So far, I agree with you entirely. Tell me, now, how the thing is
to be accomplished." And there was sarcasm in his voice.

"What difficulties does it present?" inquired Gian Maria.

"No difficulties," was the ironical reply. "She has shut herself up in
the stoutest castle in Italy, and tells me that she will not come forth
until I promise her freedom of choice in the matter of marriage.
Clearly, there are no difficulties attached to her being brought back."

Gian Maria showed his teeth.

"Do you give me leave to go about it in my own way?" he asked.

"Not only do I give you leave, but I'll render you all the assistance in
my power, if you can devise a means for luring her from Roccaleone."

"I hesitate no longer. Your niece, Lord Duke, is a rebel, and as a rebel
is she to be treated. She has garrisoned a castle, and hurled defiance
at the ruler of the land. It is a declaration of war, Highness, and war
we shall have."

"You would resort to force?" asked Guidobaldo, disapproval lurking in his

"To the force of arms, your Highness," answered Gian Maria, with prompt
fierceness. "I will lay siege to this castle of hers, and I shall tear
it stone from stone. Oh, I would have wooed her nicely had she let me,
with gentle words and mincing ways that maidens love. But since she
defies us, I'll woo her with arquebuse and cannon, and seek by starvation
to make her surrender to my suit. My love shall put on armour to subject
her, and I vow to God that I shall not shave my beard until I am inside
her castle."

Guidobaldo looked grave.

"I should counsel gentler measures," said he. "Besiege her if you will,
but do not resort to too much violence. Cut off their resources and let
hunger be your advocate. Even so, I fear me, you will be laughed at by
all Italy," he added bluntly.

"A fig for that! Let the fools laugh if they be minded to. What forces
has she at Roccaleone?"

At the question Guidobaldo's brow grew dark. It was as if he had
recalled some circumstance that had lain forgotten.

"Some twenty knaves led by a notorious ruffian of the name of Fortemani.
The company was enrolled, they tell me, by a gentleman of my court, a
kinsman of my Duchess, Messer Romeo Gonzaga."

"Is he with her now?" gasped Gian Maria.

"It would seem he is."

"By the Virgin's Ring of Perugia!" spluttered Gian Maria in increased
dismay. "Do you suggest that they fled together?"

"My lord!" Guidobaldo's voice rang sharp and threatening. "It is of my
niece that you are speaking. She took this gentleman with her just as
she took three of her ladies and a page or two, to form such attendance
as befits her birth."

Gian Maria took a turn in the apartment, a frown wrinkling his brow, and
his lips pressed tight. Guidobaldo's proud words by no means convinced
him. But the one preponderating desire in his heart just then was to
humble the girl who had dared to flout him, to make her bend her stubborn
neck. At last:

"I may indeed become the laughing-stock of Italy," he muttered, in a
concentrated voice, "but I shall carry my resolve through, and my first
act upon entering Roccaleone will be to hang this knave Gonzaga from its
highest turret."

That very day Gian Maria began his preparations for the expedition
against Roccaleone, and word of it was carried by Fanfulla to Francesco--
for the latter had left his quarters at the palace upon hearing of Gian
Maria's coming, and was now lodging at the sign of the "Sun."

Upon hearing the news he swore a mighty oath in which he consigned his
cousin to the devil, by whom, in that moment, he pronounced him begotten.

"Do you think," he asked, when he was calmer," that this man Gonzaga is
her lover?"

"It is more than I can say," answered Fanfulla. "There is the fact that
she fled with him. Though when I questioned Peppe on this same subject
he first laughed the notion to scorn, and then grew grave. 'She loves
him not, the popinjay,' he said; 'but he loves her, or I am blind else,
and he's a villain, I know.'"

Francesco stood up, his face mighty serious, and his dark eyes full of
uneasy thought.

"By the Host! It is a shameful thing," he cried out at last. "This poor
lady so beset on every hand by a parcel of villains, each more
unscrupulous than the other. Fanfulla, send for Peppe. We must despatch
the fool to her with warning of Gian Maria's coming, and warning, too,
against this man of Mantua she has fled with."

"Too late," answered Fanfulla. "The fool departed this morning for
Roccaleone, to join his patrona."

Francesco looked his dismay.

"She will be undone," he groaned. "Thus between the upper and the nether
stone--between Gian Maria and Romeo Gonzaga. Gesù! she will be undone!
And she so brave and so high-spirited!"

He moved slowly to the casement, and stood staring at the windows across
the street, on which the setting sun fell in a ruddy glow. But it was
not the windows that he saw. It was a scene in the woods at Acquasparta
on that morning after the mountain fight; a man lying wounded in the
bracken, and over him a gentle lady bending with eyes of pity and
solicitude. Often since had his thoughts revisited that scene, sometimes
with a smile, sometimes with a sigh, and sometimes with both at once.

He turned suddenly upon Fanfulla. "I will go myself," he announced.

"You?" echoed Fanfulla. "But the Venetians?"

By a gesture the Count signified how little the Venetians weighed with
him when compared with the fortunes of this lady.

"I am going to Roccaleone," he insisted, "now--at once." And striding to
the door he beat his hands together and called Lanciotto.

"You said, Fanfulla, that in these days there are no longer maidens held
in bondage to whom a knight-errant may lend aid. You were at fault, for
in Monna Valentina we have the captive maiden, in my cousin the dragon,
in Gonzaga another, and in me the errant knight who is destined--I hope--
to save her."

"You will save her from Gian Maria?" questioned Fanfulla incredulously.

"I will attempt it."

He turned to his servant, who entered as he spoke.

"We set out in a quarter of an hour, Lanciotto," said he. "Saddle for me
and for yourself. You are to go with me. Zaccaria may remain with
Messer degli Arcipreti. You will care for him, Fanfulla, and he will
serve you well."

"But what of me?" cried Fanfulla. "Do I not accompany you?"

"If you will, yes. But you might serve me better by returning to
Babbiano and watching the events there, sending me word of what befalls--
for great things will befall soon if my cousin returns not and the Borga
advances. It is upon this that I am founding such hopes as I have."

"But whither shall I send you word? To Roccaleone?"

Francesco reflected a moment. "If you do not hear from me, then send
your news to Roccaleone, for if I should linger there and we are
besieged, it will perhaps be impossible to send a message to you. But
if--as I hope--I go to Aquila, I will send you word of it."

"To Aquila?"

"Yes. It may be that I shall be at Aquila before the week is out. But
keep it secret, Fanfulla, and I'll fool these dukes to the very top of
their unhealthy bent."

A half-hour later the Count of Aquila, mounted on a stout Calabrian
horse, and attended by Lanciotto on a mule, rode gently down towards the
valley. They went unnoticed, for what cared for them the peasants that
sang at their labours in the contado?

They met a merchant, whose servant was urging his laden sumpters up the
hilly road to the city on the heights, and they passed him with a
courteous greeting. Farther they came upon a mounted company of nobles
and ladies, returning from a hawking party, and followed by attendants
bearing their hooded falcons, and their gay laughter still rang in
Francesco's ears after he had passed from their sight and vanished in the
purple mists of eventide that came up to meet him from the river.

They turned westward towards the Apennines, and pushed on after night had
fallen, until the fourth hour, when at Francesco's suggestion they drew
rein before a sleepy, wayside locanda, and awoke the host to demand
shelter. There they slept no longer than until matins, so that the grey
light of dawn saw them once more upon their way, and by the time the sun
had struck with its first golden shaft the grey crest of the old hills,
they drew rein on the brink of the roaring torrent at the foot of the
mighty crag that was crowned by the Castle of Roccaleone.

Grim and gaunt it loomed above the fertile vale, with that torrent
circling it in a natural moat, like a giant sentinel of the Apennines
that were its background. And now the sunlight raced down the slopes of
the old mountains like a tide. It smote the square tower of the keep,
then flowed adown the wall, setting the old grey stone a-gleaming, and
flashing back from a mullioned window placed high up. Lower it came,
revealing grotesque gargoyles, flooding the crenellated battlements and
turning green the ivy and lichen that but a moment back had blackened the
stout, projecting buttresses. Thence it leapt to the ground, and drove
the shadow before it down the grassy slope, until it reached the stream
and sparkled on its foaming, tumbling waters, scattering a hundred
colours through the flying spray.

And all that time, until the sun had reached him and included him in the
picture it was awakening, the Count of Aquila sat in his saddle, with
thoughtful eyes uplifted to the fortress.

Then, Lanciotto following him, he walked his horse round the western
side, where the torrent was replaced by a smooth arm of water, for which
a cutting had been made to complete the isolation of the crag of
Roccaleone. But here, where the castle might more easily have become
vulnerable, a blank wall greeted him, broken by no more than a narrow
slit or two midway below the battlements. He rode on towards the
northern side, crossing a footbridge that spanned the river, and at last
coming to a halt before the entrance tower. Here again the moat was
formed by the torrential waters of the mountain stream.

He bade his servant rouse the inmates, and Lanciotto hallooed in a voice
that nature had made deep and powerful. The echo of it went booming up
to scare the birds on the hillside, but evoked no answer from the silent

"They keep a zealous watch," laughed the Count. "Again, Lanciotto."

The man obeyed him, and again and again his deep voice rang out like a
trumpet-call before sign was made from within that it had been heard. At
length, above the parapet of the tower appeared a stunted figure with
head unkempt, as grotesque almost as any of the gargoyles beneath, and an
owlish face peered at them from one of the crenels of the battlement, and
demanded, in surly, croaking tones their business. Instantly the Count
recognised Peppe.

"Good morrow, fool," he bade him.

"You, my lord?" exclaimed the jester.

"You sleep soundly at Roccaleone," quoth Francesco. "Bestir that knavish
garrison of yours, and bid the lazy dogs let down the bridge. I have
news for Monna Valentina."

"At once, Excellency," the fool replied, and would have gone upon the
instant but that Francesco recalled him.

"Say, Peppe, a knight--the knight she met at Acquasparta, if you will.
But leave my name unspoken."

With the assurance that he would obey his wishes Peppe went his errand.
A slight delay ensued, and then upon the battlements appeared Gonzaga,
sleepy and contentious, attended by a couple of Fortemani's knaves, who
came to ask the nature of Francesco's business.

"It is with Monna Valentina," answered him Francesco, raising head and
voice, so that Gonzaga recognised him for the wounded knight of
Acquasparta, remembered and scowled.

"I am Monna Valentina's captain here," he announced, with arrogance.
"And you may deliver to me such messages as you bear."

There followed a contention, conducted ill-humouredly on the part of
Gonzaga and scarcely less so on the Count's, Francesco stoutly refusing
to communicate his business to any but Valentina, and Gonzaga as stoutly
refusing to disturb the lady at that hour, or to lower the bridge. Words
flew between them across the waters of the moat, and grew hotter at each
fresh exchange, till in the end they were abruptly terminated by the
appearance of Valentina herself, attended by Peppino.

"What is this, Gonzaga?" she inquired, her manner excited, for the fool
had told her that it was the knight Francesco who sought admittance, and
at the very mention of the name she had flushed, then paled, then started
for the ramparts. "Why is this knight denied admittance since he bears a
message for me?" And from where she stood she sought with admiring eyes
the graceful shape of the Count of Aquila--the knight-errant of her
dreams. Francesco bared his head, and bent to the withers of his horse
in courteous greeting. She turned to Gonzaga impatiently.

"For what do you wait?" she cried. "Have you not understood my wishes?
Let the bridge be lowered."

"Bethink you, Madonna," he remonstrated. "You do not know this man. He
may be a spy of Gian Maria's--a hireling paid to betray us."

"You fool," she answered sharply. "Do you not see that it is the wounded
knight we met that day you were escorting me to Urbino?"

"What shall that signify?" demanded he. "Is it proof of his honesty of
purpose or loyalty to you? Be advised, Madonna, and let him deliver his
message from where he is. He is safer there."

She measured him with a determined eye.

"Messer Gonzaga, order them to lower the bridge," she bade him.

"But, lady, bethink you of your peril."

"Peril?" she echoed. "Peril from two men, and we a garrison of over
twenty? Surely the man is a coward who talks so readily of perils. Have
the drawbridge lowered."

"But if----" he began, with a desperate vehemence, when again she cut him

"Am I to be obeyed? Am I mistress, and will you bid them lower the
bridge, or must I, myself, go see to it?"

With a look of despairing anger and a shrug of the shoulders he turned
from her, and despatched one of his men with an order. A few moments
later, with a creaking of hinges and a clanking of chains, the great
bridge swung down and dropped with a thud to span the gulf. Instantly
the Count spurred his horse forward, and followed by Lanciotto rode
across the plank and under the archway of the entrance tower into the
first courtyard.

Now, scarcely had he drawn rein there when through a door at the far end
appeared the gigantic figure of Fortemani, half-clad and sword in hand.
At sight of Francesco the fellow leaped down a half-dozen steps, and
advanced towards him with a burst of oaths.

"To me!" he shouted, in a voice that might have waked the dead. "Olá!
Olá! What devil's work is this? How come you here? By whose orders was
the bridge let down?"

"By the orders of Monna Valentina's captain," answered Francesco,
wondering what madman might be this.

"Captain?" cried the other, coming to a standstill and his face turning
purple. "Body of Satan! What captain? I am captain here."

The Count looked him over in surprise.

"Why, then," said he, "you are the very man I seek. I congratulate you
on the watch you keep, Messer Capitano. Your castle is so excellently
patrolled that had I been minded for a climb I had scaled your walls and
got within your gates without arousing any of your slumbering sentries."

Fortemani eyed him with a lowering glance. The prosperity of the past
four days had increased the insolence inherent in the man.

"Is that your affair?" he growled menacingly. "You are over-bold, sir
stranger, to seek a quarrel with me, and over-pert to tell me how I shall
discharge my captaincy. By the Passion! You shall be punished."

"Punished--I?" echoed Francesco, on whose brow there now descended a
scowl as black as Ercole's own.

"Aye, punished, young sir. Ercole Fortemani is my name."

"I have heard of you," answered the Count contemptuously, "and of how you
belie that name of yours, for they tell me that a more drunken, cowardly,
good-for-nothing rogue is not to be found in Italy--no, not even in the
Pope's dominions. And have a care how you cast the word 'punishment' at
your betters, animal. The moat is none so distant, and the immersion may
profit you. For I'll swear you've not been washed since they baptized
you--if, indeed, you be a son of Mother Church at all."

"Sangue di Cristo!" spluttered the enraged bully, his face mottled.
"This to me? Come down from that horse."

He laid hold of Francesco's leg to drag him to the ground, but the Count
wrenched it free by a quick motion that left a gash from his spur upon
the captain's hands. Simultaneously he raised his whip, and would have
laid the lash of it across the broad of Fortemani's back--for it had
angered him beyond words to have a ruffian of this fellow's quality
seeking to ruffle it with him--but at that moment a female voice, stern
and imperative, bade them hold in their quarrel.

Fortemani fell back nursing his lacerated hand and muttering curses,
whilst Francesco turned in the direction whence that voice had come.
Midway on the flight of stone steps he beheld Valentina, followed by
Gonzaga, Peppe, and a couple of men-at-arms, descending from the

Calm and queenly she stood, dressed in a camorra of grey velvet with
black sleeves, which excellently set off her handsome height. Gonzaga
was leaning forward, speaking into her ear, and for all that his voice
was subdued, some of his words travelled down to Francesco on the still,
morning air.

"Was I not wise, Madonna, in that I hesitated to admit him? You see what
manner of man he is."

The blood flamed in Francesco's cheeks, nor did it soften his chagrin to
note the look which Valentina flashed down at him.

Instantly he leapt to the ground, and flinging his reins to Lanciotto he
went forward to the foot of that stone staircase, his broad hat slung
back upon his shoulders, to meet that descending company.

"Is this seemly, sir?" she questioned angrily. "Does it become you to
brawl with my garrison the moment you are admitted?"

The blood rose higher in Francesco's face, and now suffused his temples
and reached his hair. Yet his voice was well restrained as he made

"Madonna, this knave was insolent."

"An insolence that you no doubt provoked," put in Gonzaga, a dimple
showing on his woman's check. But the sterner rebuke fell from the lips
of Valentina.

"Knave?" she questioned, with flushed countenance. "If you would not
have me regret your admittance, Messer Francesco, I pray you curb your
words. Here are no knaves. That, sir, is the captain of my soldiers."

Francesco bowed submissively, as patient under her reproof as he had been
hasty under Fortemani's.

"It was on the matter of this captaincy that we fell to words," he
answered, with more humility. "By his own announcement I understood this
nobleman"--and his eyes turned to Gonzaga--"to be your captain."

"He is the captain of my castle," she informed him.

"As you see, Ser Francesco," put in Peppe, who had perched himself upon
the balustrade, "we suffer from no lack of captains here. We have also
Fra Domenico, who is captain of our souls and of the kitchen; myself am
captain of----"

"Devil take you, fool," snapped Gonzaga, thrusting him roughly from his
perch. Then turning abruptly to the Count: "You bear a message for us,
sir?" he questioned loftily.

Swallowing the cavalier tone, and overlooking the pronoun Gonzaga
employed, Francesco inclined his head again to the lady.

"I should prefer to deliver it in more privacy than this." And his eye
travelled round the court and up the steps behind, where was now
collected the entire company of Fortemani. Gonzaga sneered and tossed
his golden curls, but Valentina saw naught unreasonable in the request,
and bidding Romeo attend her and Francesco follow, she led the way.

They crossed the quadrangle, and, mounting the steps down which Fortemani
had dashed to meet the Count, they passed into the banqueting-hall, which
opened directly upon the south side of the courtyard. The Count,
following in her wake, ran the gauntlet of scowls of the assembled
mercenaries. He stalked past them unmoved, taking their measure as he
went, and estimating their true value with the unerring eye of the
practised condottiero who has had to do with the enrolling of men and the
handling of them. So little did he like their looks that on the
threshold of the hall he paused and stayed Gonzaga.

"I am loath to leave my servant at the mercy of those ruffians, sir. May
I beg that you will warn them against offering him violence?"

"Ruffians?" cried the lady angrily, before Gonzaga could offer a reply.
"They are my soldiers."

Again he bowed, and there was a cold politeness in the tones in which he
answered her:

"I crave your pardon, and I will say no more--unless it be to deplore
that I may not felicitate you on your choice."

It was Gonzaga's turn to wax angry, for the choice had been his.

"Your message will have need to be a weighty one, sir, to earn our
patience for your impertinence."

Francesco returned the look of those blue eyes which vainly sought to
flash ferociously, and he made little attempt to keep his scorn from
showing in his glance. He permitted himself even to shrug his shoulders
a trifle impatiently.

"Indeed, indeed, I think that I had best begone," he answered
regretfully, "for it is a place whose inmates seem all bent on
quarrelling with me. First your captain Fortemani greets me with an
insolence hard to leave unpunished. You, yourself, Madonna, resent that
I should crave protection for my man against those fellows whose looks
give rise for my solicitation. You are angry that I should dub them
ruffians, as if I had followed the calling of arms these ten years
without acquiring knowledge of the quality of a man however much you may
disguise him. And lastly, to crown all, this cicisbeo"--and he spread a
hand contemptuously towards Gonzaga--"speaks of my impertinences."

"Madonna," cried Gonzaga, "I beg that you will let me deal with him."

Unwittingly, unwillingly, Gonzaga saved the situation by that prayer.
The anger that was fast rising in Madonna's heart, stirred by the proud
bearing of the Count, was scattered before the unconscious humour of her
captain's appeal, in such ludicrous contrast was his mincing speech and
slender figure with Francesco's firm tones and lean, active height. She
did not laugh, for that would have been to have spoilt all, but she
looked from one to the other with quiet relish, noting the glance of
surprise and raised eyebrows with which the Count received the courtier's
request to be let deal with him. And thus, being turned from anger, the
balance of her mind was quick to adjust itself, and she bethought her
that perhaps there was reason in what this knight advanced, and that his
reception had lacked the courtesy that was his due. In a moment, with
incomparable grace and skill, she had soothed Gonzaga's ruffled vanity,
and appeased the Count's more sturdy resentment.

"And now, Messer Francesco," she concluded, "let us be friends, and let
me hear your business. I beg that you will sit."

They had passed into the banqueting-hall--a noble apartment, whose walls
were frescoed with hunting and pastoral scenes, one or two of which were
the work of Pisaniello. There were, too, some stray trophies of the
chase, and, here and there, a suit of costly armour that caught the
sunlight pouring through the tall, mullioned windows. At the far end
stood a richly carved screen of cedar, and above this appeared the
twisted railing of the minstrels' gallery. In a tall armchair of
untanned leather, at the head of the capacious board, Monna Valentina
sate herself, Gonzaga taking his stand at her elbow, and Francesco
fronting her, leaning lightly against the table.

"The news I bear you, lady, is soon told," said the Count. "I would its
quality were better. Your suitor Gian Maria returning to Guidobaldo's
court, eager for the nuptials that were promised him, has learnt of your
flight to Roccaleone and is raising--indeed will have raised by now--an
army to invest and reduce your fortress."

Gonzaga turned as pale as the vest of white silk that gleamed beneath his
doublet of pearl-coloured velvet at this realisation of the prophecies he
had uttered without believing. A sickly fear possessed his soul. What
fate would they mete out to him who had been the leading spirit in
Valentina's rebellion? He could have groaned aloud at this miscarriage
of all his fine plans. Where now would be the time to talk of love, to
press and carry his suit with Valentina and render himself her husband?
These would be war in the air, and bloody work that made his skin creep
and turn cold to ponder on. And the irony of it all was keenly cruel.
It was the very contingency that he had prophesied, assured that neither
Guidobaldo nor Gian Maria would be so mad as to court ridicule by
engaging upon it.

For a second Francesco's eyes rested on the courtier's face, and saw the
fear written there for all to read. The shadow of a smile quivered on
his lips as his glance moved on to meet the eyes of Valentina, sparkling
as sparkles frost beneath the sun.

"Why, let them come!" she exclaimed, almost in exultation. "This ducal
oaf shall find me very ready for him. We are armed at all points. We
have victuals to last us three months, if need be, and we have no lack of
weapons. Let Gian Maria come, and he will find Valentina della Rovere
none so easy to reduce. To you, sir," she continued, with more calm, "to
you on whom I have no claim, I am more than grateful for your chivalrous
act in riding here to warn me."

Francesco sighed; a look of regret crossed his face.

"Alas!" he said. "When I rode hither, Madonna, I had hoped to serve you
to a better purpose. I had advice to offer and assistance if you should
need it; but the sight of those men-at-arms of yours makes me fear that
it is not advice upon which it would be wise to act. For the plan I had
in mind, it would be of the first importance that your soldiers should be
trustworthy, and this, I fear me, they are not."

"Nevertheless," put in Gonzaga feverishly, clinging to a slender hope,
"let us hear it."

"I beg that you will," said Valentina.

Thus enjoined, Francesco pondered a moment.

"Are you acquainted with the politics of Babbiano?" he inquired.

"I know something of them."

"I will make the position quite clear to you, Madonna," he rejoined. And
with that he told her of the threatened descent of Caesar Borgia upon
Gian Maria's duchy, and hence, of the little time at her suitor's
disposal; so that if he could but be held in check before the walls of
Roccaleone for a little while, all might be well. "But seeing in what
haste he is," he ended, "his methods are likely to be rough and
desperate, and I had thought that meanwhile you need not remain here,

"Not remain?" she cried, scorn of the notion in her voice. "Not remain?"
quoth Gonzaga timorously, hope sounding in his.

"Precisely, Madonna. I would have proposed that you leave Gian Maria an
empty nest, so that even if the castle should fall into his hands he
would gain nothing."

"You would advise me to fly?" she demanded.

"I came prepared to do so, but the sight of your men restrains me. They
are not trustworthy, and to save their dirty skins they might throw
Roccaleone open to the besiegers, and thus your flight would be
discovered, while yet there might be time to render it futile."

Before she could frame an answer there was Gonzaga feverishly urging her
to act upon so wise and timely a suggestion, and seek safety in flight
from a place that Gian Maria would tear stone from stone. His words
pattered quickly and piteously in entreaty, till in the end, facing him

"Are you afraid, Gonzaga?" she asked him.

"I am--afraid for you, Madonna," he answered readily.

"Then let your fears have peace. For whether I stay or whether I go, one
thing is certain: Gian Maria never shall set hands upon me." She turned
again to Francesco. "I see a certain wisdom in the counsel of flight you
would have offered me, no less than in what I take to be your advice that
I should remain. Did I but consult my humour I should stay and deliver
battle when this tyrant shows himself. But prudence, too, must be
consulted, and I will give the matter thought." And now she thanked him
with a generous charm for having come to her with this news and proffered
his assistance, asking what motives brought him.

"Such motives as must ever impel a knight to serve a lady in distress,"
said he, "and perhaps, too, the memory of the charity with which you
tended my wounds that day at Acquasparta."

For a second their glances met, quivered in the meeting, and fell apart
again, an odd confusion in the breast of each, all of which Gonzaga, sunk
in moody rumination, observed not. To lighten the awkward silence that
was fallen, she asked him how it had transpired so soon that it was to
Roccaleone she had fled.

"Do you not know?" he cried. "Has not Peppe told you?"

"I have had no speech with him. He but reached the castle, himself, late
last night, and I first saw him this morning when he came to announce
your presence."

And then, before more could be said, there arose a din of shouting from
without. The door was pushed suddenly open, and Peppe darted into the

"Your man, Ser Francesco" he cried, his face white with excitement.
"Come quickly, or they will kill him."



The thing had begun with the lowering glances that Francesco had
observed, and had grown to gibes and insults after he had disappeared.
But Lanciotto had preserved an unruffled front, being a man schooled in
the Count of Aquila's service to silence and a wondrous patience. This
insensibility those hinds translated into cowardice, and emboldened by
it--like the mongrels that they were--their offensiveness grew more
direct and gradually more threatening. Lanciotto's patience was slowly
oozing away, and indeed, it was no longer anything but the fear of
provoking his master's anger that restrained him. At length one burly
ruffian, who had bidden him remove his head-piece in the company of
gentlemen, and whose request had been by Lanciotto as disregarded as the
rest, advanced menacingly towards him and caught him by the leg, as
Ercole had caught his master. Exasperated at that, Lanciotto had swung
his leg free, and caught the rash fellow a vicious kick in the face that
had felled him, stunned and bleeding.

The roar from the man's companions told Lanciotto what to expect. In an
instant they were upon him, clamouring for his blood. He sought to draw
his master's sword, which together with the Count's other armour was
slung across his saddle-bow; but before he could extricate it, he was
seized by a dozen hands, and cropped, fighting, from the saddle. On the
ground they overpowered him, and a mailed hand was set upon his mouth,
crushing back into his throat the cry for help he would have raised.

On the west side of the courtyard a fountain issuing from the wall had
once poured its water through a lion's head into a vast tank of moss-
grown granite. But it had been disused for some time, and the pipe in
the lion's mouth was dry. The tank, however, was more than half full of
water, which, during the late untenanting of the castle, had turned foul
and stagnant. To drown Lanciotto in this was the amiable suggestion that
emanated from Fortemani himself--a suggestion uproariously received by
his knaves, who set themselves to act upon it. They roughly dragged the
bleeding and frantically struggling Lanciotto across the yard and gained
the border of the tank, intending fully to sink him into it and hold him
under, to drown there like a rat.

But in that instant a something burst upon him like a bolt from out of
Heaven. In one or two, and presently in more, the cruel laughter turned
to sudden howls of pain as a lash of bullock-hide caught them about head
and face and shoulders.

"Back there, you beasts, you animals, back!" roared a voice of thunder,
and back they went unquestioning before that pitiless lash, like the pack
of craven hounds they were.

It was Francesco, who, single-handed, and armed with no more than a whip,
was scattering them from about his maltreated servant, as the hawk
scatters a flight of noisy sparrows. And now between him and Lanciotto
there stood no more than the broad bulk of Ercole Fortemani, his back to
the Count; for, as yet, he had not realised the interruption.

Francesco dropped his whip, and setting one hand at the captain's girdle,
and the other at his dirty neck, he hoisted him up with a strength
incredible, and hurled him from his path and into the slimy water of the

There was a mighty roar drowned in a mightier splash as Fortemani,
spread-eagle, struck the surface and sank from sight, whilst with the
flying spray there came a fetid odour to tell of the unsavouriness of
that unexpected bath.

Without pausing to see the completion of his work, Francesco stooped over
his prostrate servant.

"Have the beasts hurt you, Lanciotto?" he questioned. But before the
fellow could reply, one of those hinds had sprung upon the stooping
Count, and struck him with a dagger between the shoulder-blades.

A woman's alarmed cry rang out, for Valentina was watching the affray
from the steps of the hall, with Gonzaga at her elbow.

But Francesco's quilted brigandine had stood the test of steel, and the
point of that assassin's dagger glanced harmlessly aside, doing no worse
hurt than a rent in the silk surface of the garment. A second later the
fellow found himself caught as in a bond of steel. The dagger was
wrenched from his grasp, and the point of it laid against his breast even
as the Count forced him down upon his knees.

In a flash was the thing done, yet to the wretched man who saw himself
upon the threshold of Eternity, and who--like a true son of the Church--
had a wholesome fear of hell, it seemed an hour whilst, with livid cheeks
and eyes starting from his head, he waited for that poniard to sink into
his heart, as it was aimed. But not in his heart did the blow fall.
With a sudden snort of angry amusement, the Count pitched the dagger from
him and brought down his clenched fist with a crushing force into the
ruffian's face. The fellow sank unconscious beneath that mighty blow,
and Francesco, regaining the whip that lay almost at his feet, rose up to
confront what others there might be.

From the tank, standing breast-deep in that stinking water, his head and
face grotesquely masked in a vile green slime of putrid vegetation,
Ercole Fortemani bellowed with horrid blasphemy that he would have his
aggressor's blood, but stirred never a foot to take it. Not that he was
by nature wholly a coward; but inspired by a wholesome fear of the man
who could perform such a miracle of strength, he remained out of
Francesco's reach, well in the middle of that square basin, and lustily
roared orders to his men to tear the fellow to pieces. But his men had
seen enough of the Count's methods, and made no advance upon that
stalwart, dauntless figure that stood waiting for them with a whip which
several had already tasted. Huddled together, more like a flock of
frightened sheep than a body of men of war, they stood near the entrance
tower, the mock of Peppe, who from the stone-gallery above--much to the
amusement of Valentina's ladies and two pert pages that were with him--
applauded in high-flown terms their wondrous valour.

They stirred at last, but it was at Valentina's bidding. She had been
conferring with Gonzaga, who--giving it for his reason that she, herself,
might need protection--had remained beside her, well out of the fray.
She had been urging him to do something, and at last he had obeyed her,
and moved down the short flight of steps into the court; but so
reluctantly and slowly, that with an exclamation of impatience, she
suddenly brushed past him, herself to do the task she had begged of him.
Past Francesco she went, with a word of such commendation of his valour
and a look of such deep admiration, that the blood sprang, responsive, to
his cheek. She paused with a solicitous inquiry for the now risen but
sorely bruised Lanciotto. She flashed an angry look and an angry command
of silence at the great Ercole, still bellowing from his tank, and then,
within ten paces of his followers, she halted, and with wrathful mien,
and hand outstretched towards their captain, she bade them arrest him.

That sudden, unexpected order struck dumb the vociferous Fortemani. He
ceased, and gaped at his men, who eyed one another now in doubt; but the
doubt was quickly dispelled by the lady's own words:

"You will make him prisoner, and conduct him to the guardroom, or I will
have you and him swept out of my castle," she informed them, as
confidently as though she had a hundred men-at-arms to do her bidding on

A pace or so behind her stood the lily-cheeked Gonzaga, gnawing his lip,
timid and conjecturing. Behind him again loomed the stalwart height of
Francesco del Falco with, at his side, Lanciotto, of mien almost as
resolute as his own.

That was the full force with which the lady spoke of sweeping them--as if
they had been so much foulness--from Roccaleone, unless they did her
bidding. They were still hesitating, when the Count advanced to
Valentina's side.

"You have heard the choice our lady gives you," he said sternly. "Let us
know whether you will obey or disobey. This choice that is yours now,
may not be yours again. But if you elect to disobey Madonna, the gate is
behind you, the bridge still down. Get you gone!"

Furtively, from under lowering brows, Gonzaga darted a look of impotent
malice at the Count. Whatever issue had the affair, this man must not
remain in Roccaleone. He was too strong, too dominant, and he would
render himself master of the place by no other title than that strength
of his and that manner of command which Gonzaga accounted a coarse,
swashbuckling bully's gift, but would have given much to be possessed of.
Of how strong and dominant indeed he was never had Francesco offered a
more signal proof. Those men, bruised and maltreated by him, would
beyond doubt have massed together and made short work of one less
dauntless but when a mighty courage such as his goes hand-in-hand with
the habit of command, such hinds as they can never long withstand it.
They grumbled something among themselves, and one of them at last made

"Noble sir, it is our captain that we are bidden to arrest."

"True; but your captain, like yourselves, is in this lady's pay; and she,
your true, your paramount commander, bids you arrest him." And now,
whilst yet they hesitated, his quick wits flung them the bait that must
prove most attractive. "He has shown himself to-day unfitted for the
command entrusted him and it may become a question, when he has been
judged, of choosing one of you to fill the place he may leave empty."

Hinds were they in very truth; the scum of the bravi that haunted the
meanest borgo of Urbino. Their hesitation vanished, and such slight
loyalty as they felt towards Ercole was overruled by the prospect of his
position and his pay, should his disgrace become accomplished.

They called upon him to come forth from his refuge, where he still stood,
dumb and stricken at this sudden turn events had taken. He sullenly
refused to obey the call to yield, until Francesco--who now assumed
command with a readiness that galled Gonzaga more and more--bade one of
them go fetch an arquebuse and shoot the dog. At that he cried out for
mercy, and came wading to the edge of the tank swearing that if the
immersion had not drowned him, it were a miracle but he was poisoned.

Thus closed an incident that had worn a mighty ugly look, and it served
to open Valentina's eyes to the true quality of the men Gonzaga had hired
her. Maybe that it opened his own for that amiable lute-thrummer was
green of experience in these matters. She bade Gonzaga care for
Francesco, and called one of the grinning pages from the gallery to be
his esquire. A room was placed at his disposal for the little time that
he might spend at Roccaleone, whilst she debated what her course should

A bell tolled in the far southern wing of the castle, beyond the second
courtyard, and summoned her to chapel, for there Fra Domenico said Mass
each morning. And so she took her leave of Francesco, saying she would
pray Heaven to direct her to a wise choice, whether to fly from
Roccaleone, or whether to remain and ward off the onslaught of Gian

Francesco, attended by Gonzaga and the page, repaired to a handsome room
under the Lion's Tower, which rose upon the south-eastern angle of the
fortress. His windows overlooked the second, or inner, courtyard, across
which Valentina and her ladies were now speeding on their way to Mass.

Gonzaga made shift to stifle the resentment that he felt against this
man, in whom he saw an interloper, and strove to treat him with the
courtesy that was his due. He would even have gone the length of
discussing with him the situation--prompted by a certain mistrust, and
cunningly eager to probe the real motive that had brought this stranger
to interest himself in the affairs of Valentina. But Francesco, wearily,
yet with an unimpeachable politeness, staved him off, and requested that
Lanciotto might be sent to attend him. Seeing the futility of his
endeavours, Gonzaga withdrew in increased resentment, but with a
heightened sweetness of smile and profoundness of courtesies.

He went below to issue orders for the raising of the bridge, and finding
the men singularly meek and tractable after the sharp lesson Francesco
had read them, he vented upon them some of the vast ill-humour that
possessed him. Next he passed on to his own apartments, and there he sat
himself by a window overlooking the castle gardens, with his unpleasant
thoughts for only company.

But presently his mood lightened and he took courage, for he could be
very brave when peril was remote. It was best, he reflected, that
Valentina should leave Roccaleone. Such was the course he would advise
and urge. Naturally, he would go with her, and so he might advance his
suit as well elsewhere as in that castle. On the other hand, if she
remained, why, so would he, and, after all, what if Gian Maria came? As
Francesco had said, the siege could not be protracted, thanks to the
tangled affairs of Babbiano. Soon Gian Maria would be forced to turn him
homeward, to defend his Duchy. If, then, for a little while they could
hold him in cheek, all would yet be well. Surely he had been over-quick
to despond.

He rose and stretched himself with indolent relish, then pushing wide his
casement, he leaned out to breathe the morning air. A soft laugh escaped
him. He had been a fool indeed to plague himself with fears when he had
first heard of Gian Maria's coming. Properly viewed, it became a service
Gian Maria did him--whether they remained, or whether they went. Love
has no stronger promoter than a danger shared, and a week of such
disturbances as Gian Maria was likely to occasion them should do more to
advance his suit than he might hope to achieve in a whole month of
peaceful wooing. Then the memory of Francesco set a wrinkle 'twixt his
brows, and he bethought him how taken Valentina had been with the fellow
when first she had beheld him at Acquasparta, and of how, as she rode
that day, she had seen naught but the dark eyes of this Knight Francesco.

"Knight Francesco of what or where?" he muttered to himself. "Bah! A
nameless, homeless adventurer; a swashbuckling bully, reeking of blood
and leather, and fit to drive such a pack as Fortemani's. But with a
lady--what shalt such an oaf attain, how shall he prevail?" He laughed
the incipient jealousy to scorn, and his brow grew clear, for now he was
in an optimistic mood--perhaps a reaction from his recent tremors. "Yet,
by the Host!" he pursued, bethinking him of the amazing boldness
Francesco had shown in the courtyard, "he has the strength of Hercules,
and a way with him that makes him feared and obeyed. Pish!" he laughed
again, as, turning, he unhooked his lute from where it hung upon the
wall. "The by-blow of some condottiero, who blends with his father's
bullying arrogance the peasant soul of his careless mother. And I fear
that such a one as that shall touch the heart of my peerless Valentina?
Why, it is a thought that does her but poor honour."

And dismissing Francesco from his mind, he sought the strings with his
fingers, and thrummed an accompaniment as he returned to the window, his
voice, wondrous sweet and tender, breaking into a gentle love-song.



Monna Valentina and her ladies dined at noon in a small chamber opening
from the great hall, and thither were bidden Francesco and Gonzaga. The
company was waited upon by the two pages, whilst Fra Domenico, with a
snow-white apron girt about his portentous waist, brought up the steaming
viands from the kitchen where he had prepared them; for, like a true
conventual, he was something of a master in the confection--and a very
glutton in the consumption--of delectable comestibles. The kitchen was
to him as the shrine of some minor cult, and if his breviary and beads
commanded from him the half of the ecstatic fervour of his devotions to
pot and pan, to cauldron and to spit, then was canonisation indeed
assured him.

He set before them that day a dinner than which a better no prince
commanded, unless it were the Pope. There were ortolans, shot in the
valley, done with truffles, that made the epicurean Gonzaga roll his
eyes, translated through the medium of his palate into a very paradise of
sensual delight. There was a hare, trapped on the hillside, and stewed
in Malmsey, of a flavour so delicate that Gonzaga was regretting him his
heavy indulgence in the ortolans; there was trout, fresh caught in the
stream below, and a wondrous pasty that turned liquid in the mouth. To
wash down these good things there was stout red wine of Puglia and more
delicate Malvasia, for in his provisioning of the fortress Gonzaga had
contrived that, at least, they should not go thirsty.

"For a garrison awaiting siege you fare mighty well at Roccaleone," was
Francesco's comment on that excellent repast.

It was the fool who answered him. He sat out of sight upon the floor,
hunched against the chair of one of Valentina's ladies, who now and again
would toss him down a morsel from her plate, much as she might have
treated a favourite hound.

"You have the friar to thank for it," said he, in a muffled voice, for
his mouth was crammed with pasty. "Let me be damned when I die, if I
make him not my confessor. The man who can so minister to bodies should
deal amazingly well with souls. Fra Domenico, you shall confess me after

"You need me not," answered the monk, in disdainful wrath. "There is a
beatitude for such as you--'Blessed are the poor in spirit.'"

"And is there no curse for such as you?" flashed back the fool. "Does it
say nowhere--'Damned are the gross of flesh, the fat and rotund gluttons
who fashion themselves a god of their own bellies'?"

With his sandalled foot the friar caught the fool a surreptitious kick.

"Be still, you adder, you bag of venom."

Fearing worse, the fool gathered himself up.

"Beware!" he cried shrilly. "Bethink you, friar, that anger is a
cardinal sin. Beware, I say!"

Fra Domenico checked his upraised hand, and fell to muttering scraps of
Latin, his lids veiling his suddenly down­cast eyes. Thus Peppe gained
the door.

"Say, friar; in my ear, now--Was that a hare you stewed, or an outworn

"Now, God forgive me," roared the monk, springing towards him.

"For your cooking? Aye, pray--on your knees." He dodged a blow, ducked,
and doubled back into the room. "A cook, you? Pish! you tun of convent
lard! Your ortolans were burnt, your trout swam in grease, your

What the pasty may have been the company was not to learn, for Fra
Domenico, crimson of face, had swooped down upon the fool, and would have
caught him but that he dived under the table by Valentina's skirts, and
craved her protection from this gross maniac that held himself a cook.

"Now, hold your wrath, father," she said, laughing with the rest. "He
does but plague you. Bear with him for the sake of that beautitude you
cited, which has fired him to reprisals."

Mollified, but still grumbling threats of a beating to be bestowed on
Peppe when the opportunity should better serve him, the friar turned to
his domestic duties. They rose soon after, and at Gonzaga's suggestion
Valentina paused in the great hall to issue orders that Fortemani be
brought before her for judgment. In a score of ways, since their coming
to Roccaleone, had Ercole been wanting in that respect to which Gonzaga
held himself entitled, and this opportunity he seized with eagerness to
vent his vindictive rancour.

Valentina begged of Francesco that he, too, would stay, and help them
with his wide experience, a phrase that sent an unpleasant pang through
the heart of Romeo Gonzaga. It was perhaps as much to assert himself as
to gratify his rancour against Fortemani, that, having despatched a
soldier to fetch the prisoner, he turned to suggest curtly that Ercole
should be hanged at once.

"What boots a trial?" he demanded. "We were all witnesses of his
insubordination, and for that there can be but one punishment. Let the
animal hang!"

"But the trial is of your own suggestion," she protested.

"Nay, Madonna. I but suggested judgment. It is since you have begged
Messer Francesco, here, to assist us that I opine you mean to give the
knave a trial."

"Would you credit this dear Gonzaga with so much bloodthirstiness?" she
asked Francesco. "Do you, sir, share his opinion that the captain should
hang unheard? I fear me you do, for, from what I have seen of them, your
ways do not incline to gentleness."

Gonzaga smiled, gathering from that sentence how truly she apprised the
coarse nature of this stranger. Francesco's answer surprised them.

"Nay, I hold Messer Gonzaga's an ill counsel. Show mercy to Fortemani
now, where he expects none, and you will have made a faithful servant of
him. I know his kind."

"Ser Francesco speaks without the knowledge that we have, Madonna," was
Gonzaga's rude comment. "An example must be made if we would have
respect and orderliness from these men."

"Then make it an example of mercy," suggested Francesco sweetly.

"Well, we shall see," was Valentina's answer. "I like your counsel,
Messer Francesco, and yet I see a certain wisdom in Gonzaga's words.
Though in such a case as this I would sooner consort with folly than have
a man's death upon my conscience. But here he comes, and, at least,
we'll give him trial. Maybe he is penitent by now."

Gonzaga sneered, and took his place on the right of Valentina's chair,
Francesco standing on her left; and in this fashion they disposed
themselves to hold judgment upon the captain of her forces.

He was brought in between two mailed men-at-arms, his hands pinioned
behind him, his tread heavy as that of a man in fear, his eyes directed
sullenly upon the waiting trio, but sullenest of all upon Francesco, who
had so signally encompassed his discomfiture. Valentina spread a hand to
Gonzaga, and from Gonzaga waved it slightly in the direction of the
Bully. Responsive to that gesture, Gonzaga faced the pinioned captain

"You know your offence, knave," he bawled at him. "Have you aught to
urge that may deter us from hanging you?"

Fortemani raised his brows a moment in surprise at this ferocity from one
whom he had always deemed a very woman. Then he uttered a laugh of such
contempt that the colour sprang to Gonzaga's cheek.

"Take him out----" he began furiously, when Valentina interposed, setting
a hand upon his arm.

"Nay, nay, Gonzaga, your methods are all wrong. Tell him---- Nay, I
will question him myself. Messer Fortemani, you have been guilty of an
act of gross abuse. You and your men were hired for me by Messer
Gonzaga, and to you was given the honourable office of captain over them,
that you might lead them in this service of mine in the ways of duty,
submission, and loyalty. Instead of that, you were the instigator of
that outrage this morning, when murder was almost done upon an
inoffensive man who was my guest. What have you to say?"

"That I was not the instigator," he answered sullenly.

"It is all one," she returned, "for at least it was done with your
sanction, and you took a share in that cruel sport, instead of
restraining it, as was clearly your duty. It is upon you, the captain,
that the responsibility rests."

"Lady," he explained, "they are wild souls, but very true."

"True to their wildness, maybe," she answered him disdainfully. Then she
proceeded: "You will remember that twice before has Messer Gonzaga had
occasion to admonish you. These last two nights your men have behaved
riotously within my walls. There has been hard drinking, there has been
dicing, and such brawling once or twice as led me to think there would be
throats cut among your ranks. You were warned by Messer Gonzaga to hold
your followers in better leash, and yet to-day, without so much as
drunkenness to excuse them, we have this vile affair, with yourself for a
ringleader in it."

There followed a pause, during which Ercole stood with bent head like one
who thinks, and Francesco turned his wonder-laden glance upon this slight
girl with the gentle brown eyes which had been so tender and pitiful.
Marvelling at the greatness of her spirit, he grew--all unconsciously--
the more enslaved.

Gonzaga, all unconcerned in this, eyed Fortemani in expectation of his

"Madonna," said the bully at last, "what can you look for from such a
troop as this? Messer Gonzaga cannot have expected me to enlist acolytes
for a business that he told me bordered upon outlawry. Touching their
drunkenness and the trifle of rioting, what soldiers have not these
faults? When they have them not, neither have they merit. The man that
is tame in times of peace is a skulking woman in times of war. For the
rest, whence came the wine they drank? It was of Messer Gonzaga's

"You lie, hound!" blazed Gonzaga. "I provided wine for Madonna's table,
not for the men."

"Yet some found its way to them; which is well. For water on the stomach
makes a man poor-spirited. Where is the sin of a little indulgence,
Madonna?" he went on, turning again to Valentina. "These men of mine
will prove their mettle when it comes to blows. They are dogs perhaps--
but mastiffs every one of them, and would lose a hundred lives in your
service if they had them."

"Aye, if they had them," put in Gonzaga sourly; "but having no more than
one apiece, they'll not care to spare it."

"Nay, there you wrong them," cried Fortemani, with heat. "Give them a
leader strong enough to hold them, to encourage and subject them, and
they will go anywhere at his bidding."

"And there," put in Gonzaga quickly, "you bring us back to the main
issue. Such a leader you have shown us that you are not. You have done
worse. You have been insubordinate when you should not only have been
orderly, but have enforced orderliness in others. And for that, by my
lights, you should be hanged. Waste no more time on him, Madonna," he
concluded, turning to Valentina. "Let the example be made."

"But, Madonna----" began Fortemani, paling under the tan of his rugged

Gonzaga silenced him.

"Your words are vain. You have been insubordinate, and for
insubordination there is but one penalty."

The bully hung his head, deeming himself lost, and lacking the wit to
retort as Francesco unexpectedly retorted for him.

"Madonna, there your adviser is at fault. The charge against the man is
wrong. There has been no insubordination."

"How?" she questioned, turning to the Count. "None, say you?"

"A Solomon is arisen," sneered Gonzaga. Then peevishly; "Waste not words
with him, Madonna," he pursued. "Our business is with Fortemani."

"But stay, my good Gonzaga. He may be right."

"Your heart is over-tender," answered Romeo impatiently. But she had
turned from him now, and was begging Francesco to make his meaning

"Had he raised his hand against you, Madonna, or even against Messer
Gonzaga, or had he disobeyed an order given him by either of you, then,
and then only, could there be question of insubordination. But he has
done none of these things. He is guilty of grossly misusing my servant,
it is true, but there is no insubordination in that, since he was under
no promise of loyalty to Lanciotto."

They stared at him as though his words were words of recondite wisdom
instead of the simple statement of a plain case. Gonzaga crestfallen,
Fortemani with a light of hope and wonder shining in his eyes, and
Madonna with a faint nodding of the head that argued agreement. They
wrangled a while yet, Gonzaga bitter and vindictive and rashly scornful
of both Francesco and Fortemani. But the Count so resolutely held the
ground he had taken that in the end Valentina shrugged her shoulders,
acknowledged herself convinced, and bade Francesco deliver judgment.

"You are in earnest, Madonna?" quoth Francesco in surprise, whilst a
black scowl disfigured the serenity of Gonzaga's brow.

"I am indeed, Deal with him as you account best and most just, and it
shall fare with him precisely as you ordain."

Francesco turned to the men-at-arms. "Unbind him, one of you," he said

"I believe that you are mad," cried Gonzaga, in a frenzy, but his mood
sprang rather from the chagrin of seeing his interloper prevail where he
had failed. "Madonna, do not heed him."

"I pray you let be, my good Gonzaga," she answered soothingly, and
Gonzaga, ready to faint from spite, obeyed her.

"Leave him there, and go," was Paolo's next order to the men, and they
departed, leaving the astonished Fortemani standing alone, unbound and

"Now mark me well, Messer Fortemani," Francesco admonished him. "You did
a cowardly thing, unworthy of the soldier that you would have men believe
you. And for that, I think, the punishment you received at my hands has
been sufficient, in that the indignity to which I submitted you has
shaken your standing with your followers. Go back to them now and
retrieve what you have lost, and see that in the future you are worthier.
Let this be a lesson to you, Messer Fortemani. You have gone perilously
near hanging, and you have had it proved to you that in moments of peril
your men are ready to raise their hands against you. Why is that?
Because you have not sought their respect. You have been too much a
fellow of theirs in their drinking and their brawling, instead of holding
yourself aloof with dignity."

"Lord, I have learnt my lesson!" answered the cowed bully.

"Then act upon it. Resume your command, and discipline your men to a
better order. Madonna, here, and Messer Gonzaga will forget this thing.
Is it not so, Madonna? Is it not so, Messer Gonzaga?"

Swayed by his will and by an intuition that told her that to whatever end
he might be working, he was working wisely, Valentina gave Fortemani the
assurance Francesco begged, and Gonzaga was forced grudgingly to follow
her example.

Fortemani bowed low, his face pale and his limbs trembling as not even
fear had made them tremble. He advanced towards Valentina, and sinking
on one knee, he humbly kissed the hem of her gown.

"Your clemency, Madonna, shall give you no regret. I will serve you to
the death, lady, and you, lord." At the last words he raised his eyes to
Francesco's calm face. Then, without so much as a glance at the
disappointed Gonzaga, he rose, and bowing again--a very courtier--he

The closing of the door was to Gonzaga a signal to break out in a torrent
of bitter reproofs against Francesco, reproofs that were stemmed midway
by Valentina.

"You are beside yourself, Gonzaga," she exclaimed. "What has been done,
has been done with my sanction. I do not doubt the wisdom of it."

"Do you not? God send you never may! But that man will know no peace
until he is avenged on us."

"Messer Gonzaga," returned Francesco, with an incomparable politeness, "I
am an older man than are you, and maybe that I have seen more warring and
more of such men. There is a certain valour lurks in that bully for all
his blustering boastfulness and swagger, and there is, too, a certain
sense of justice. Mercy he has had to-day, and time will show how right
I am in having pardoned him in Madonna's name. I tell you, sir, that
nowhere has Monna Valentina a more faithful servant than he is now likely
to become."

"I believe you, Messer Francesco. Indeed, I am sure your act was wisdom

Gonzaga gnawed his lip.

"I may be wrong," said he, in grudging acquiescence. "I hope, indeed, I
may be."



The four great outer walls of Roccaleone stood ranged into a mighty
square, of which the castle proper occupied but half. The other half,
running from north to south, was a stretch of garden, broken into three
terraces. The highest of these was no more than a narrow alley under the
southern wall, roofed from end to end by a trellis of vines on beams
blackened with age, supported by uprights of granite, square and roughly

A steep flight of granite steps, weedy in the interstices of the old
stone, and terminating in a pair of couchant lions at the base, led down
to the middle terrace, which was called the upper garden. This was split
in twain by a very gallery of gigantic box trees running down towards the
lower terrace, and bearing eloquent witness to the age of that old
garden. Into this gallery no sun ever penetrated by more than a furtive
ray, and on the hottest day in summer a grateful cool dwelt in its green
gloom. Rose gardens spread on either side of it, but neglect of late had
left them rank with weeds.

The third and lowest of these terraces, which was longer and broader than
either of those above, was no more than a smooth stretch of lawn,
bordered by acacias and plane trees, from the extreme corner of which
sprang a winding, iron-railed staircase of stone, leading to an eerie
which corresponded diagonally with the Lion's Tower, where the Count of
Aquila was lodged.

On this green lawn Valentina's ladies and a page beguiled the eventide in
a game of bowls, their clumsiness at the unwonted pastime provoking the
good-humoured banter of Peppe, who looked on, and their own still better-
humoured laughter.

Fortemani, too, was there, brazening out the morning's affair, which it
almost seemed he must have forgotten, so self-possessed and mightily at
his ease was he. He was of the kind with whom shame strikes never very
deeply, and he ruffled it gaily there, among the women, rolling his
fierce eyes to ogle them seductively, tossing his gaudy new cloak with a
high-born disdain--gloriously conscious that it would not rend in the
tossing, like the cloaks to which grim Circumstance had lately accustomed
him--and strutting it like any cock upon a dunghill.

But the lesson he had learnt was not likely to share the same
forgetfulness. Indeed, its fruits were to be observed already in the
more orderly conduct of his men, four of whom, partisan on shoulder, were
doing duty on the walls of the castle. They had greeted his return
amongst them with sneers and derisive allusions to his immersion, but
with a few choicely-aimed blows he had cuffed the noisiest into silence
and a more subservient humour. He had spoken to them in a rasping,
truculent tone, issuing orders that he meant should be obeyed, unless the
disobeyer were eager for a reckoning with him.

Indeed, he was an altered man, and when that night his followers, having
drunk what he accounted enough for their good, and disregarding his
orders that they should desist and get them to bed, he went in quest of
Monna Valentina. He found her in conversation with Francesco and
Gonzaga, seated in the loggia of the dining-room. They had been there
since supper, discussing the wisdom of going or remaining, of fleeing or
standing firm to receive Gian Maria. Their conference was interrupted
now by Ercole with his complaint.

She despatched Gonzaga to quell the men, a course that Fortemani treated
to a covert sneer. The fop went rejoicing at this proof that her
estimate of his commanding qualities had nowise suffered by contrast with
those of that swashbuckling Francesco. But his pride rode him to a
bitter fall.

They made a mock of his remonstrances, and when he emulated Francesco's
methods, addressing them with sharp ferocity, and dubbing them beasts and
swine, they caught the false ring of his fierceness, which was as unlike
the true as the ring of lead is unlike that of silver. They jeered him
insults, they mimicked his tenor voice, which excitement had rendered
shrill, and they bade him go thrum a lute for his lady's delectation, and
leave men's work to men.

His anger rose, and they lost patience; and from showing their teeth in
laughter, they began to show them in snarls. At this his ferocity
deserted him. Brushing past Fortemani, who stood cold and contemptuous
by the doorway, watching the failure he had expected, he returned with
burning cheeks and bitter words to Madonna Valentina.

She was dismayed at the tale he bore her, magnified to cover his own
shame. Francesco sat quietly drumming on the sill, his eyes upon the
moonlit garden below, and never by word or sign suggesting that he might
succeed where Romeo had failed. At last she turned to him.

"Could you----?" she began, and stopped, her eyes wandering back to
Gonzaga, loath to further wound a pride that was very sore already. On
the instant Francesco rose.

"I might try, Madonna," he said quietly, "although Messer Gonzaga's
failure gives me little hope. And yet, it may be that he has taken the
keen edge from their assurance, and that, thus, an easier task awaits me.
I will try, Madonna." And with that he went.

"He will succeed, Gonzaga," she said, after he had gone. "He is a man of
war, and knows the words to which these fellows have no answer."

"I wish him well of his errand," sneered Gonzaga, his pretty face white
now with sullenness. "And I'll wager you he fails."

But Valentina disdained the offer whose rashness was more than proven
when, at the end of some ten minutes, Francesco re-entered, as
imperturbable as when he went.

"They are quiet now, Madonna," he announced.

She looked at him questioningly. "How did you accomplish it?" she

"I had a little difficulty," he said, "yet not over-much." His eye roved
to Gonzaga, and he smiled. "Messer Gonzaga is too gentle with them. Too
true a courtier to avail himself of the brutality that is necessary when
we deal with brutes. You should not disdain to use your hands upon
them," he admonished the fop in all seriousness, and without a trace of
irony. Nor did Gonzaga suspect any.

"I, soil my hands on that vermin?" he cried, in a voice of horror. "I
would die sooner."

"Or else soon after," squeaked Peppe, who had entered unobserved.
"Patrona mia, you should have seen this paladin," he continued, coming
forward. "Why, Orlando was never half so furious as he when he stood
there telling them what manner of dirt they were, and bidding them to bed
ere he drove them with a broomstick."

"And they went?" she asked.

"Not at first," said the fool. "They had drunk enough to make them very
brave, and one who was very drunk was so brave as to assault him. But
Ser Francesco fells him with his hands, and calling Fortemani he bids him
have the man dropped in a dungeon to grow sober. Then, without waiting
so much as to see his orders carried out, he stalks away, assured that no
more was needed. Nor was it. They rose up, muttering a curse or two,
maybe--yet not so loud that it might reach the ears of Fortemani--and got
themselves to bed."

She looked again at Francesco with admiring eyes, and spoke of his
audacity in commending terms. This he belittled; but she persisted.

"You have seen much warring, sir," she half-asked, half­asserted.

"Why, yes, Madonna."

And here the writhing Gonzaga espied his opportunity.

"I do not call to mind your name, good sir," he purred.

Francesco half-turned towards him, and for all that his mind was working
with a lightning quickness, his face was indolently calm. To disclose
his true identity he deemed unwise, for all connected with the Sforza
brood must earn mistrust at the hands of Valentina. It was known that
the Count of Aquila stood high in the favour of Gian Maria, and the news
of his sudden fall and banishment could not have reached Guidobaldo's
niece, who had fled before the knowedge of it was in Urbino. His name
would awaken suspicion, and any story of disgrace and banishment might be
accounted the very mask to fit a spy. There was this sleek, venomous
Gonzaga, whom she trusted and relied on, to whisper insidiously into her

"My name," he said serenely, "is, as I have told you. Francesco."

"But you have another?" quoth Valentina, interest prompting the question.

"Why, yes, but so closely allied to the first as to be scarce worth
reciting. I am Francesco Franceschi, a wandering knight."

"And a true one, as I know." She smiled at him so sweetly that Gonzaga
was enraged.

"I have not heard the name before," he murmured, adding:

"Your father was----?"

"A gentleman of Tuscany."

"But not at Court?" suggested Romeo.

"Why, yes, at Court."

Then with a sly insolence that brought the blood to Francesco's cheeks,
though to the chaste mind of Valentina's it meant nothing--"Ah!" he
rejoined. "But then, your mother----?"

"Was more discriminating, sir, than yours," came the sharp answer, and
from the shadows the fool's smothered burst of laughter added gall to it.

Gonzaga rose heavily, drawing a sharp breath, and the two men stabbed
each other with their eyes. Valentina, uncomprehending, looked from one
to the other.

"Sirs, sirs, what have you said?" she cried. "Why all this war of

"He is over-quick to take offence, Madonna, for an honest man," was
Gonzaga's answer. "Like the snake in the grass, he is very ready with
his sting when we seek to disclose him."

"For shame, Gonzaga," she cried, now rising too. "What are you saying?
Are you turned witless? Come, sirs, since you are both my friends, be
friends each with the other."

"Most perfect syllogism!" murmured the fool, unheeded.

"And you, Messer Francesco, forget his words. He means them not. He is
very hot of fancy, but sweet at heart, this good Gonzaga."

On the instant the cloud lifted from Francesco's brow.

"Why, since you ask me," he answered, inclining his head, "if he'll but
say he meant no malice by his words, I will confess as much for mine."

Gonzaga, cooling, saw that haply he had gone too fast, and was the
readier to make amends. Yet in his bosom he nursed an added store of
poison, a breath of which escaped him as he was leaving Valentina, and
after Francesco had already gone:

"Madonna," he muttered, "I mistrust that man."

"Mistrust him? Why?" she asked, frowning despite her faith in the

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